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June 9, 2023

At Le Mans, at long last, we race

The Garage 56 Le Mans entry drives on the course

LE MANS, France – Jim France was watching the final test of the Garage 56 project from behind the pit wall of Sebring International Raceway. The NASCAR chairman and CEO was full of expectation that April day, ruminating about how the American stock-car entry into the sports-car world of the 24 Hours of Le Mans would be received.

“The thing that I’m most proud of is the partners that have all come in …,” France said, referring to the collaboration among NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear that developed and launched a full race team for the French endurance event’s centennial celebration. But France’s words trailed off and he paused, allowing the test car to roar past on Sebring’s main straightaway. Unclear was whether he stopped to allow himself to be heard or to enjoy the modified Next Gen car’s V-8 rumble on another hot lap.

“… and the sound of that race car,” France said with a grin and a pump of his fist.

Nearly two months after that Sebring afternoon, the Garage 56 project’s date with the 24 Hours of Le Mans has arrived. The twice-around-the-clock race starts Saturday at 10 a.m. ET (4 p.m. locally) and marks the culmination of months of planning, testing and dreaming big for the group, which is entered in the “Innovative Car” class in the 62-car field. It’s also the realization of a vision from France, who has followed his father’s path in bringing NASCAR to the international stage.

“I mean, it’s like Christmas,” said team owner Rick Hendrick, noting France’s elation in the run-up to the Le Mans 24. “I think it’s something his dad wanted done, so he’s got a shot to fulfill the family dream. But I have never, and I’ve known him for 40 years, I’ve never seen him this excited about anything.”

John Doonan, Jim France, Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller, Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus stand and pose for a photo

The project planted some of its roots three years ago, said Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports VP of Competition. At the time, Knaus had been recruited to assist seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and the Action Express team with its participation in IMSA endurance events. Shortly thereafter, a letter arrived.

” ‘Mr. France requests your attendance in Le Mans,’ ” Knaus recalled the memo reading. “And I was like, ‘What in the world is that about?’ So I ended up coming over here with Mr. France for a short stint. Unbeknownst to me, he already had the wheels spinning on what his plan was. He was kind of baiting us in from the very start, and he had a grand master plan.”

Those first visits helped Knaus soak in information about what a Garage 56 effort would entail, and meetings with Chevrolet and Goodyear followed. All the findings were relayed to Hendrick, and the project lifted off from the runway with a March 2022 unveiling.

“The excitement at that point just skyrocketed, and what we saw last year as a company at Hendrick Motorsports, we knew that we wanted to be involved in Le Mans,” Knaus said. “We knew that we wanted to take part in it. We wanted to show everybody what Hendrick Motorsports was capable of doing with a Gen-7 car. And, gosh, it’s hard to believe it was only about 18 months ago when we had our first meeting, and here we sit today with a car that we feel very comfortable with. The drivers have been complimentary, a pit crew that is capable of pitting the car at a very fast pace, and welcomed with open arms.”

That embrace has been felt at most every corner from the largely European contingent at Le Mans, which has been billed as the “Race of the Century” – a nod to the 100th anniversary but also to the compelling competition among the powerhouses in the top Hypercar class, which will pit the pole-starting Ferrari effort against contenders from Porsche, Toyota, Cadillac and Peugeot.

NASCAR’s participation has drawn at least some of its own spotlight, not just from the vehicle’s novelty and the starry driver lineup of Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller, but in how it has performed during testing. The No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 quickly shot atop the speed chart for the LMGTE Am class during Sunday’s open test day, and the car has maintained that pace for the balance of the week. The performance prompted World Endurance Championship (WEC) officials to reverse course overnight Thursday; the Garage 56 car was initially scheduled to start at the rear of the field as an add-on entrant, but given its weeklong pace, it will take the grid ahead of the GT-class cars and behind the faster LMP2 prototypes.

The brow-raising speed and the car’s throaty engine note have so far been distinctive among the others in the field, just as intended.

“Just to see the reaction from the crowd, it feeds our team, so they’re so proud,” Hendrick said. “And just to watch the fan reaction and read all the comments about it being a beast, and all the TikToks — my granddaughter sent me all these TikTok things that fans are sending in. It’s just been better than I anticipated. Reading all the articles, I thought at the beginning, it was gonna be ‘hey, these guys don’t know what they’re doing, they can’t compete, they won’t last. It won’t be fast, they’ll be in the way.’ And just then to see all the teams come down, from Ferrari and different other organizations come in to see the car, and want to hear it run.”

The Garage 56 car has already stood out among its sports-car peers, distant brethren on the massive Circuit de la Sarthe. Photos of the hulking Camaro on track and in the full-field grid photo have launched a fleet of motoring memes.

“I’ve seen a bunch of fans already, and they just can’t stop talking about the sound of it,” said Jordan Taylor, the program’s reserve driver and coach. “Social media has blown up about it, and the pictures look hilarious how big it looks on track compared to everyone else. I heard someone say that when they were in the slipstream of it, it punches such a big hole in the air that the pitot tube, which measures air pressure, went to zero. It was like it was in a vacuum behind us. It definitely punches such a big hole in the air, but it’s awesome to see the reception that everyone has given.”

A full field photo of the Le Mans cars illustrates just how big NASCAR's Garage 56 entry is

The greeting has been a warm one, from competitors along the pit road to the fans who stacked the Garage 56’s autograph line earlier in the week. Anyone wearing a Garage 56 team shirt was ripe for a nudge. “Your car?” one conversation went through a thick accent, before the fan moved his fingers to his lips to make the universal sign for “chef’s kiss.”

“There’s no reason not to love this car. It’s just … it’s something you draw on your wall as a kid,” Button said. “It’s got big wings here and there, it’s loud, it’s aggressive-looking, and it kind of looks like a road car, do you know what I mean? So people can relate to it a lot more than the Hypercars that are racing in Le Mans.”

Friday was a relatively quiet day at the 8.467-mile circuit, with no on-track activity before Saturday’s early warm-up and only the glamorous driver parade ahead for the drivers. The Hendrick Motorsports crew was set to focus on detail work and finishing touches, after changing to the race engine and sorting out some issues with the car’s sensors the day before.

The car has already made an impression on Le Mans, which was part of the project’s goal. The next mission is the race itself, a test of endurance and another opportunity to showcase NASCAR to an international audience.

“To be over here and competing on a global stage in the biggest road-racing event probably in the world, and the performance of the team and the drivers and everybody … when I talked to Rick about coming over, I said we’re gonna try and get a big spotlight shining on NASCAR. We sure don’t want to fall on our ass when we get over there,” France said. “So far, it’s not over yet, but we’re holding our own.”